Get to grips with the basics of on-page SEO and give your webpages an advantage in cyberspace.
Search engine optimisation, or SEO, tends to evoke strong feelings in my new clients. For those who understand the need to optimise their webpages, SEO is a necessary chore. And for those who’ve never heard the term, SEO is often downright intimidating.
But search engine optimisation is a lot more manageable than you might think – especially if you focus on the webpage elements deemed important for online performance. There are seven of them, and they fall into a category of SEO called on-page SEO.
What is on-page SEO?
As a whole, search engine optimisation is a process. More specifically, it’s the process of optimising webpages to rank well on the results pages of search engines like Google. This is achieved by improving the content and code on individual webpages (on-page SEO) and by managing the external factors that impact webpage performance (off-page SEO). Your efforts in both areas will determine whether your webpages are loved or loathed by the internet’s various search engines.
If you’re using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, or a website development platform like Wix, then there’s a good chance you’ve already encountered some of the on-page SEO elements explained in this article. But the more you know about them, the better equipped you’ll be to maximise the ranking potential of your webpages.
The seven webpage elements widely acknowledged as the most useful for on-page SEO in 2018 are:
- The URL
- The title tag
- The meta description
- The heading tags
- The image alternative tags
- The keywords
- The content
SEO experts consider the title tag and the webpage content to be particularly valuable for on-page search engine optimisation, but we’ll put all seven elements under a microscope as we look at ways to supercharge them. Let’s start at the top of the checklist…
The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is the internet address for a webpage, file or tool published online. Internet browsers like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer display the URL in the horizontal address bar at the top of the browser window.
Have you noticed that URLs follow a standard format? The three main parts of the URL are the protocol, the domain name and the path.
The protocol dictates how your web browser communicates with web servers. HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) are the most common protocols you’ll see on the internet. The main difference between them, as suggested by their initialisms, is the “S” for “Secure”. It’s a critical distinction, though, because it indicates when a data transfer is (and is not) protected.
The domain name is the website’s unique identifier in cyberspace. The best domain names are easy to remember, simple to pronounce and a cinch to spell. Consider these South African examples:
game.co.za | takealot.com | builders.co.za | gumtree.co.za
The path is the end portion of the URL and it shows the route to a specific resource within a file structure. There may be more than one segment within the path, separated by a forward slash. In the graphic above, the path directs readers (and search engines) to a post about chicken pasta (/chicken-pasta-recipe) on the blog page (/blog) of the mysite.co.za website.
Why is the URL important for on-page SEO?
The length of the URL, the path of the URL and the keywords contained within the URL are some of the factors that Google considers as part of its ranking algorithm. To give your webpages the best chance of success on search engine results pages (SERPs), you need to customise their URLs in line with best practice:
HTTPS is the preferred protocol. You’ll notice that online banking portals, e-commerce sites and login pages employ the HTTPS protocol because the information you provide to them (usernames, passwords, financial details) is private and sensitive. In fact, it’s often the kind of personal info that scammers try to steal, and thus needs to be encrypted and protected for security purposes.
Although the non-secure HTTP protocol is still widely used, there’s a growing public awareness of the inherent risks throughout cyberspace. In 2016, Google announced that Chrome would highlight connection security with a padlock icon in the address bar – a visual cue to encourage safer browsing. The search titan’s latest push for web security is much bolder: beginning in July this year, with the release of Chrome 68, Google’s Chrome browser will mark all HTTP sites as “not secure”.
It’s clear that Google wants safer webpages. And it’s difficult to ignore the wishes of the (search) market leader when SEO professionals have been warned of the potential consequences of snubbing a switch from HTTP to HTTPS.
Bear in mind, though, that a website-wide migration from HTTP to HTTPS is a complex procedure. You’ll need to speak to your webmaster or web developer about the technical steps to follow. And you’ll need to ask your resident SEO expert to manage the migration’s effects on your existing search rankings.
Shorter is sweeter, but don’t forget the keywords. The industry trend is to keep URLs under 75 characters in length. The character count includes the protocol and domain name, so you have to make the path content as concise as possible. You also have to include a keyword or two. And you have to maintain readability, so that each URL makes sense to readers and search engines.
Remember that URLs are navigational elements with visual components. These days, we see URLs almost as often as we click on them. Think about the links you receive in emails. Think about the content you find on social networks. Think about your reaction when you see a URL that’s readable, as opposed to one that’s just a string of nonsensical letters and numbers. Aren’t you more inclined to click on the URL that’s understandable? Aren’t you more likely to trust the URL that’s explicit about its destination? I know I am.
Use the lower case. Small letters are the norm for URLs. Sometimes, search engines will distinguish between lower-case letters and upper-case letters, so it’s possible that mysite.co.za/blog and mysite.co.za/Blog will be interpreted as two different URLs. It’s crucial to remove the risk of duplication by using the lower case only.
Hyphens can be used to separate words in the URL, but spaces and underscores should be avoided. In general, the alphanumeric characters on your keyboard (letters from A to Z and numbers from 0 to 9) are considered safe to use in the URL. They’re also fine to use in the title tag, which is the next on-page SEO element we’re going to explore.
The title tag
The title tag is a piece of HTML code that states the title, or name, of an individual webpage. The title tag identifies the webpage’s main topic, purpose or function through the judicious use of relevant keywords and descriptive phrases.
The title tag is critical for search engine optimisation because it’s displayed on SERPs. It’s equally important for your branding and marketing efforts because it’s visible in browser tabs and on social networks (when a webpage link is shared).
Let’s use my home page (janinepapendorf.com) as an example. This is what the title tag looks like in HTML code:
This is how it appears on SERPs…
And this is how it looks in a browser tab…
When you’re composing a title tag, it’s best to follow the recognised guidelines:
- Aim for 55 characters (including spaces). Generally, title tags are between 50 and 60 characters in length. Search engines often cut off titles that don’t fit within these parameters. If your overly long title tag is truncated, mid-word, the tacky-looking result might make readers think twice about clicking through to your webpage.
- Stick to the structure. The ideal format for a title tag is Keyword 1, Keyword 2 | Business (or brand) name. Look back at the example from my home page. My primary keyword is freelance writer. My secondary keyword is content strategist. And my brand name is Janine Papendorf. I included a location reference (Cape Town) because I had character space to spare. You’ll notice that some companies reverse the structure to give their brand more prominence at the beginning of the title tag. In many cases, the brand name is also the primary keyword, so this practice makes sense. It’s important to maintain a sense of continuity though, so be consistent with the structure of your title tags across your entire website.
- Be careful with keywords. Do include relevant keywords for each webpage as per the format discussed earlier, but do not jam in as many as you can to try to score points with Google. You will not score any points; you will be penalised for keyword-stuffing.
- Make each title tag unique. Each webpage that you publish should have its own purpose or function – a singular raison d’être. Therefore, each title tag should have a correspondingly unique description to summarise the webpage’s role for readers and search engines.
Like the URL, the title tag is displayed whenever a webpage is listed on SERPs. Both elements provide vital info, but the reader’s decision to click through (or not) is often influenced by the text in the meta description. Let’s find out why.
The meta description
Google does not evaluate a webpage’s meta description as part of its ranking algorithm, but this particular HTML attribute is still a vital part of on-page SEO because it has a major role to play on SERPs.
Usually between 100 and 300 characters in length, the meta description is a succinct synopsis of the core content of the webpage. With title tags, the emphasis is on two keywords and the business/brand name, but meta descriptions give you more room to highlight the webpage’s intrinsic worth.
Meta descriptions are similar to sales pitches, but they shouldn’t be as “pushy” as regular advertising material. Rather, they should provide clear reasons and incentives for readers to click through to the webpage. When you’re crafting meta descriptions for your webpages, remember to:
- Write compelling copy that emphasises the webpage’s value for readers
- Incorporate relevant keywords as naturally as possible within the summary
- Keep the summary under 300 characters to reduce the risk of truncation on SERPs
- Avoid non-alphanumeric characters
There’s no guarantee that search engines will use your tailored meta description on SERPs. If Google analyses the webpage concerned and deems another paragraph more pertinent to the reader’s search query, then that piece of text will be shown instead, so compose your meta descriptions with care.
When you read a newspaper article or a magazine feature, your eyes are guided through the content by headlines and sub-headlines. These short, descriptive pieces of text divide the larger story into chunks or sections around a particular idea, thought or theme.
Heading tags for webpages have similar functions:
- They give structure to the main (textual) content of the webpage
- They provide visual signals concerning the importance of the text on the webpage
- They highlight relationships and connections between different sections of the text
There are six heading tags at your disposal and they have a hierarchy: h1, h2, h3, h4, h5 and h6.
The font type, font size and font colour will vary from CMS to CMS and from platform to platform. Likewise with bold or italicised styles. The most important thing to remember is that substance matters more than style when it comes to Google’s interest in your heading tags.
Search engines analyse the text within heading tags in relation to the overall content of the webpage to try to discern meaning, so it pays to choose your words wisely. It also pays to follow the rules:
Use one h1 tag per webpage. The h1 heading should convey the webpage’s primary focus and should ideally include the targeted keyword or search phrase.
Observe tag hierarchy. Once you’ve used the h1 tag, employ the remaining tags in their sequential order. You can use as many of the lower-level tags as you like – logically. Take a look at this draft of a blog post about travelling in Paris…
The h1 tag has been used for the post’s main headline and it summarises the topic nicely. The audience (and Google’s bots) will have a clear impression of what to expect from this blog post.
After an introductory blurb, the h2 tag is used as a sub-heading for the Day 1 itinerary, which is an entire section covering activities in the first 24 hours of the trip. This section is further divided according to the attractions that will be visited, hence the h3 tag for each listed location (equal tag “weight” and thus equal importance). As the blogger continues to write the post, the Day 2 itinerary and the Day 3 itinerary should use the h2 and h3 tags in the same way.
The logical pattern of the heading tags in the blog post will highlight the content structure, both technically (for search engines) and visually (for readers who see the rendered webpage). Strive to use heading tags with likewise consistency on your webpages.
Alternative text for images
The alternative text (alt text) for images is also known as the alternative attribute or alternative description. Most content management systems give you the option to edit this data field whenever you upload an image – and it’s essential to do so.
For those of us fortunate enough to have 20/20 vision, the interpretation of photographs, pictures and infographics is fairly simple. If we can see an image, then we can understand it. But what about visually impaired people? They cannot discern an image’s purpose on a webpage if they cannot see it. Google’s bots face a similar challenge because they don’t “look” at an image like we do. It’s therefore necessary to provide a secondary method of interpretation: the alternative text.
Composing a suitable alt text description is a bit of a balancing act. You need to provide a fair amount of detail. You need to incorporate relevant keywords. And you need to write sensibly. Your aim is to create a snippet of text that effectively stands in for the image. Take a look at the alt text options in this example…
Imagine that the photograph (almonds.jpg) is going to be used in a blog post about the health benefits of almonds. The target keyword for the post is “almonds”. Which piece of alt text is the most suitable in this case?
- #1 includes the keyword, but it’s not very descriptive.
- #2 includes the keyword and describes the image content clearly, with specific detail (glass jar, wooden table) to evoke a vivid mental picture.
- #3 includes the keyword, variations of the keyword and other terms that are contextually apt, but it doesn’t make any sense. Google would most likely view this as a keyword-stuffing technique.
Option #2 is the winner in this case. It doesn’t matter whether your image is a GIF, JPEG or PNG file: if it’s going to appear on your webpage, then it needs an alt text description that is accurate, expressive and clear.
In the world of search engine optimisation, keywords are the specific words, terms or phrases that people use to find information via search engines.
Many of us head to Google when we’re looking for answers. We want to know something. We want to find something. We want to buy something. Search queries are thus divided into three main categories: informational, navigational and transactional.
As you can see in the graphic above, search categories are linked to intent. Our intent. Our purpose when we type a word, or a string of words, into a search engine’s query field. What are we looking for? What are we trying to achieve? Google’s bots are programmed to interpret search queries and then retrieve the most relevant answers to display on results pages.
Keywords play an important role in on-page SEO because they act as signals for Google’s bots. Signals of relevancy. Signals of suitability. Signals of correlation. Signals that the information on your webpage is pertinent to a particular search query.
A good keyword strategy for your web content involves the use of broad (or short tail) keywords, narrow (or long tail) keywords, and related (or LSI) terms. Let’s examine this trio in more detail:
- Short tail keywords are generalised search terms that contain only one or two words. They are, therefore, quite broad in scope and likely to apply to a vast number of potential search queries. “Chocolate cake” is a short tail keyword.
- Long tail keywords have three or more search terms. They are longer and more specific than short tail keywords and often contain precise details related to the reader’s search query. “Chocolate cake recipe for vegans” is a long tail keyword.
- LSI (latent semantic indexing) is a mathematical process to evaluate the relationship between terms and concepts within a piece of content. Search engines employ LSI to assess word patterns, synonyms and related terms. LSI terms are thus the additional, contextually relevant words that you use in conjunction with your keywords in order to convey meaning. Logical LSI terms to match the “chocolate cake recipe for vegans” long tail keyword (above) would include: gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, healthy, diet, frosting, etc.
When you incorporate keywords into your main (body) content, aim for a density of about 2% (two keywords per 100 words of text). Some SEO specialists advocate a keyword density of up to 5%, but I’ve found my happy medium at 2%. And don’t forget to include keywords, as appropriate, in the on-page SEO elements we’ve already explored: the URL, the title tag, the meta description, the heading tags and the alternative text for images.
Now more than ever, search engines are looking for superior content. Google, in particular, is always evolving to try to provide the most useful information to searchers. Content that is relevant. Content that is valuable. Content that is credible and engaging.
In Part 2 of my Love Your Web Content series, you’ll learn how to create high-quality content that attracts readers and search engines.